By Richard Winters
My Rating: 4 out of 10
4-Word Review: Jewish man digs prostitute.
Alexander Portnoy (Richard Benjamin) is a man who no longer believes in a God or any of the other conventional ways of life taught to him by his old-fashioned Jewish parents (Jack Somack, Lee Grant). He enjoys the ‘art’ of masturbation and will routinely find excuses to go do it when his parents aren’t looking. As he grows older he finds that his sexual appetite broadens in a way that regular women won’t be able to fulfill. Then he meets Mary Jane (Karen Black). She’s a prostitute nicknamed ‘The Monkey’ due to all the wild positions that she can get her body into during sex. The two enjoy a lot of kinky times, but then she ends up falling in love with him and wanting to get married, but Portnoy resists as he considers her to be intellectually inferior and fears she’ll become an embarrassment to him with his other friends.
Philip Roth’s landmark and controversial novel comes to the big screen with only lukewarm results although it does start out funny. I laughed-out-loud at the scene where Portnoy pretends to have a bout of diarrhea just so he can sneak into the bathroom to get-off and his parents misinterpret his moans of ecstasy as being that of gaseous agony. The dream segment where Portnoy finds that his penis has fallen off and onto the kitchen floor while his parents come into to inspect it is pretty good as is the bit where Jeannie Berlin tries to give Portnoy a hand-job.
Unfortunately the film shifts too much in tone. It starts out as this quirky, dark-humored, sex-laden comedy only to end up being a brooding drama. The novel was written as a continuous monologue spoken by Portnoy while talking to his therapist, which doesn’t effectively come off here. We see a few scenes in his therapist’s office, but they are brief and I didn’t like the fact that his therapist never speaks a word of dialogue, which seemed weird and unnatural.
Screenwriter Ernest Lehman, in his one and only foray behind the camera, implements too much of a slow pace to the proceedings. Many scenes go on far longer than they should and at certain points the camera gets nailed to the ground giving it a static presence. He also hired Michel Legrand to do the film score, which is beautiful and majestic, but the lush tones are better suited for a romantic flick, which this definitely isn’t.
Karen Black gives an outstanding performance as ‘The Monkey’, but her character is too one-dimensionally dumb almost to the point that she seems mentally handicapped, which I don’t think was the intention. Either way it is never funny, touching, or even real while bordering into the stereotype that all prostitutes ‘must be really stupid’.
One of the most annoying elements of the film is that it keeps cutting back to a matted image of Black jumping from a skyscraper and towards the viewer while she screams. The image looks very hooky while giving the film a real amateurish feel. I also didn’t like how at the very end we spot Black walking amongst a crowd of people from a bird’s eye perspective. The supposed demise of the character was meant to be murky as she threatens to jump from a building and Portnoy leaves her without ever knowing if she ended up doing it or not, which then causes him a major source of guilt afterwards. By having her suddenly appear at the very end ruins the mystery and brings up far more questions than answers.
Roth’s novel was very much ahead-of-its-time and deserved a film that could match it, but Lehman’s staid approach doesn’t do it justice.
My Rating: 4 out of 10
Released: June 19, 1972
Runtime: 1Hour 41Minutes
Director: Ernest Lehman
Studio: Warner Brothers
Available: DVD (Warner Archive), YouTube